11 June 2021

Spring 2021 - Summary

Intro

This Spring has seen some very odd weather. Spring passage was undoubtedly retarded by some very long stretches of persistent northerly winds. Nevertheless, this year continues its march on as one of, if not, our best ever years for birds if we go by the rather blunt metric of the number of species recorded. Several of us are on track for personal best records.

As a team effort, the total monthly patch lists across the Spring were: March = 86; April = 93; and May = 97. The total spring list (March to end of May) was a pretty healthy 115 species.


More broadly, the health of bird diversity locally is a mixed picture. Action has obviously been taken for our dwindling breeding Skylark population, but we have some concerns that we might have lost or be about to lose Meadow Pipit as a breeding bird. Other species seem to be fairing rather better: Cetti’s Warbler seems to be moving from a patch rarity to a patch regular; Reed Warbler appears to have at least a couple of territories; and the number of Common Whitethroat territories seems strong. Wanstead Flats, in particular, remains a star performer in London for passage passerine migrants. Whilst the Spring passage is never quite as impressive as the Autumn, some of the records (such as a day high of 12 Wheatear) are notable.


Highlights

Birders generally rate a season by the number and quality of rarities and scarcities. High up on the list was our first ever Iceland Gull found by Mary on 23 March on Alex pond. There was a mad scramble to see this stunning first-winter/second calendar year white-winged gull and much gnashing of teeth from those of us who missed it on the first day followed by significant arm waving, whooping, and socially distanced air high-fives when it appeared again the following day and the day after etc.


2cy Iceland Gull - Tony Brown


If a single day had to be identified as the zenith of our Spring birding, it is probably 24 April. Tony picked up the first Green Sandpiper of the year going north over Alex. A few minutes later and a mile or so west, two Green Sandpiper flew in and landed on Cat & Dog pond right in front of me before dawn and before they saw me and scarpered. Others heard and saw one or two flying around over the next hour or two, and so we settled on a minimum of three birds. Things got better when I picked up three Whimbrel flying east over the Flats (a full patch tick for me) and another flew over shortly afterwards. This all happened before Tony found a singing Nightingale just south of Long Wood. As several of us stood silently near a patch of brambles and brooms listening to the wonderful liquid trills and whistles of the king of songbirds, I certainly reflected that it was quite high up there on the list of most memorable day’s birding on the Patch I have had.


Green Sandpiper on 'Cat & Dog' Pond at first light - James Heal



Mary was clearly not content with having found our first ever Iceland Gull and discovered a wonderful almost-summer plumage Black-necked Grebe on Alex on 3 May. This is the second ever record locally and the first in just over forty years. I won’t spare Bob V’s blushes by saying he saw the first one back when I was six months old. This wonderful golden-eared bird was still present a month after it was first found and having been twitched by a reasonable number of London, and even a few further-afield, birders.


Black-necked Grebe - Jonathan Lethbridge

Talking of twitches, bird-finder general, Nick C (although Mary is catching him up), spotted an Osprey heading west over the Flats on 6 May. He alerted East Central Turret Observatory (aka ‘Jono L’) who located the bird whilst working from home and he in turn cascaded comms to others including to Western Turret (aka ‘yours truly’) who managed to spot it out of my northern hatch (skylight) circling Bush Wood. There was a scurrilous rumour that I made a dash with my bins to the Patch to try and get Osprey on my Patch list, but failed. Clearly such a rumour of uncouth twitching is below the standing of an eminent naturalist and Chair of the Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group and I would deny it strenuously.


Nick also flushed a single Woodlark from near Long Wood on 28 May - our latest ever Spring record. At the time of writing, I am fresh in from listening to a bird sing that was an even better find from Nick, but I don’t want to steal the thunder of a summer write up (which is likely to be somewhat thinner on the ground than Spring).


For those only marginally interested in local birds, you might wish to turn the page or tune out now. For those hardier souls who get a kick out of phenological data, read on...


Spring passage migrants

The table hopefully speaks for itself. If not:

  • The second column (‘bird days’) is quite simply the number of days from March to the end of May when a particular species was recorded. We tend to find this more useful than counting birds on passage e.g. if you see three Wheatear on Saturday and three on Sunday are the birds on Sunday new in, the same as the day before or some combination?
  • The third column obviously relates to the first record of each species on the year. I have included ‘last’ date as this is a Spring review, but obviously some of these species might continue being seen throughout some of the summer months, and hopefully all of them will reappear in the Autumn on the way back.
  • The fourth column and the coloured numbers refers to the first arrival of each species this Spring with green numbers relating to the number of days earlier than the mean average first date locally and red corresponding to those later than the mean average.
  • Average count is mean average number of individual birds seen on each of the ‘bird days’ and high count is simply the highest number of individual birds of one species seen on any of the Spring days.

Whilst some of the poor weather - especially the prolonged northerlies during some of the key migratory periods - undoubtedly retarded the flow of some species by a bit, the table shows that there were still more species showing up for the first time on a date earlier than the mean average than later.


A couple of species are worth drawing attention to...


We saw reasonable numbers of Willow Warbler on passage, including an impressive high-count of 11 singing on 11 April right across the Patch. Sadly, it does not seem that any of these birds stayed as Willow Warbler does not appear to have bred locally for a few years now.


Wheatear seemed to have a good Spring, despite being four days later than the average first arrival (and a full 12 days later than our earliest ever). We had a total of 24 bird days and an average of three birds seen on each of them (with a high count of an astonishing 12 birds on 20 April).



I will let the table on Passage migrants speak for the rest of the records.




Migrant and resident breeders


A quick(ish) canter through some of the breeding birds (albeit most definitely not exhaustive). Swifts first appeared on 21 April (two days earlier than our mean average first for year), and we had a trickle through on most days after that until 1 May when a sudden jump from 2 to 23 birds signalled that our local birds had returned. We have had a couple of days when over 100 birds have been seen across the patch and an average of around 25-30 daily. No comprehensive survey of nest sites has been completed and so it is difficult to draw any conclusions beyond the numbers we see frequently.


Hobby was first seen on 25 April (four days later than the mean average) and one or two local birds seen regularly since then.


We seem to have at least two pairs of Little Owl on Wanstead Flats still and one or two of them were very frequently seen on favourite trees.


Our first Reed Warbler for the year arrived on 29 April (4 days later than the mean average) in Wanstead Park and there have been two singing males in the Park and a third heard on three days during May on the Roding in the Old Sewage Works.


Reed Warbler - Sean Kerrigan


We only have a small colony of locally breeding House Martin. The first record was on 5 April which was just one day earlier than the mean average. Our high count of at least 25 birds on 8 May was followed by only three other days when double figures were reported. The rest of the time we have only had low numbers reported regularly.


It appears that the Roding in the Old Sewage Works has two singing Cetti’s Warbler and there has been another on the Ornamentals in the Park. Fingers crossed that this year or soon we get some breeding successes.


After the odd appearance of winter Chiffchaff and perhaps a couple of early arrivals moving through, we start to see a big influx from March and then with peak counts of singers in April (this year around 13 birds during the second week of the month).


Small numbers of Blackcap also remain resident locally through the winter; particularly in local gardens, but the arrival of migrating birds seems to happen around the beginning of March. This is steep increase in numbers, perhaps as some birds passing through temporarily swell numbers, before declining to numbers of birds with established territories.


I have decided to optimistically include Garden Warbler in the company of our resident breeding birds rather than with the passage migrants although we have no evidence of breeding beyond some persistence in one or two singing males.The first one was recorded by a visiting birder to Wanstead Flats on 2 May (4 days later than the average first arrival) and the local regulars didn’t connect to one until 19 May in Wanstead Park. We had a couple singing possibly for a few days in late May in the Old Sewage Works.


Lesser Whitethroat first appeared this year on 26 April (a full 9 days later than the average first for year). We had a peak of five birds on the day after the first (probably as the migratory flood gates had opened) and have two seemingly established territories on Wanstead Flats and one in the Old Sewage Works.


Common Whitethroat has had another good year if singing males are anything to go by. The first arrival (on 14 April) was only two days later than average. Double figure counts of singing males has been a regular occurrence and we reached a peak of 25 birds counted on 7 May.


The number of Song Thrush territories on Wanstead Flats sadly seems to be declining whilst seeming more stable in Wanstead Park and the Old Sewage Works. Two or three singing males on the Flats has been a reasonable count through the season whilst 5-7 territories in the Park and 4-5 in the Old Sewage Works are also commonly achieved counts.


As anyone local will know, this the first year that the CoL has fenced off the main areas of grassland where Skylark and Meadow Pipit are known to breed. We believe that two pairs of Skylark have established territories and some evidence of breeding over an above singing males has been witnessed. Three singing birds have been heard on a few occasions but we suspect that there may be a ‘spare’ male aside from the two pairs. Let’s hope that the fencing, few disturbances to their habitat will lead over time to more sustainable breeding numbers than hopefully at least two which is where we are now.


Sadly, the story for Meadow Pipits is more dire. Whilst passage/movement birds were counted in the early part of the season, there have been no singing males at all during the crucial stages of the Spring. Hopefully this does not mean that Meadow Pipit is yet another bird to have been lost to us locally as a breeding species. Time will tell.


I won’t attempt to provide breeding survey updates of more of our commonly seen birds as I am not sure the data we collected really formed an accurate view this Spring.


Other birds

Our long-staying Common Shelduck was last seen on 25 March. We had two Spring fly-overs in March.


Mandarin Duck was reported from Wanstead Park on 14 March.


Marco strengthened his game bird credentials by finding a Pheasant on 28 March and then a Red-legged Partridge on 4 April.


Mike M heard the patch’s only Cuckoo on 30 May.


Common Sandpiper was first recorded this year on 3 May (six days later than the mean average first appearance) in the Old Sewage Works and we had one which seemed to stay for several days on Heronry a few days later.


There was a little bit of confusion reminiscent of the double trouble we had with Mediterranean Gull a few months ago when a second calendar year Caspian Gull on 6 April turned out to be two second calendar year Caspian Gulls seen on Jubilee and Alex.


2cy Caspian Gull - Tony Brown



It has clearly been a good year for gulls (with the Kittiwake and Iceland Gull helping us to a record tally of ten species this year) and a late season adult Great Black-backed Gull in Wanstead Park on 10 April was a bit of a surprise.


Great Black-backed Gull - James Heal


Indeed, we have had nine bird days with Yellow Legged Gull this year, the last of which, so far, was seen on 8 May. Our friendly second calendar Mediterranean Gull also stuck around until 12 March.


Unsurprisingly, Red Kite numbers seem to be continuing to rise with 29 ‘bird days’ from March to the end of May (41 Red Kite counted since the beginning of the year). This is still not at the level of Buzzard sightings with 50 bird days during the spring months and a day high-count of 8 birds seen on 13 April. We have also had 16 bird days for Peregrine and up to two birds seen on each of those days.


There were nine ‘bird days’ for Rook this Spring from 8 April until 1 May with a high-count of three birds on 22 April.


Rook - Tony Brown



A nice surprise in April, was a singing Firecrest in the City of London Cemetery. Whilst, strictly speaking, off-patch for the local birders, this individual was actually singing from a Holly Bush visible from the patch boundaries (whether it was audible or not whilst standing on the Patch is really a question one shouldn’t ask a gentleman).


In the spirit of phenological last dates as well as first, it is perhaps worth noting that our last sighting of Fieldfare came on 26 March (only the second year on record where we haven’t continued to record this species into April); a full two weeks earlier than the mean average last sighting. Redwing, however, continued to be recorded until 13 April which is a week later than the mean average last Spring record.


Those at the front of the class may remember that we had a bumper autumn and winter for Stonechat. We had one or two birds that stuck around until 23 March.


Similarly, some of our winter finches stuck around for a while. Our main flock of Linnet has been elsewhere since around mid February, but one or two birds in particular have been seen frequently throughout much of April and May on the Flats. The same is true for Lesser Redpoll (where a single bird was last seen on 27 April) and Siskin (last recorded on 30 April).


And, to finish with Buntings, we had three records of spring Yellowhammer (30 March, 5 April, 18 April). There were also nine records of Reed Bunting - all single birds - from March to May.


Common Redstart - Nick Croft


Canada Goose Gosling - Bob Vaughan

Ring Ouzel - Bob Vaughan

Yellow Wagtail - Nick Croft

2 March 2021

Winter Summary

[Note that this is reproduced largely from a report written for the Spring Newsletter of the Wren Wildlife & Conservation Group and has been written for a non-birding audience]

This is the first winter that the local birders have been collectively capturing their notable records using the eBird online platform. Some of us use the platform personally, but this new team account will hopefully make retrospective reports - like this one - a little easier and allow us to track and compare changes in the data over time more successfully. This report covers the winter months of December to February - each in full.


We recorded a total of 87 species over the winter (74 in December, 78 in January - I believe our best start to a year ever, and a pretty decent 83 in February).


The tables interspersed here are a collection of some of the records we have on eBird for select species. The 'bird days' column is the most likely to be mis-interpreted. Many of these species will have been present every single day, but the bird days simply correspond to days when birders reported their records.


Highlights

A big highlight was undoubtedly the fact that we joined much of the country in getting closer to White-fronted Goose than normal in December. Until then, I had only ever seen one flock pass over on the patch in the past 6 years. We had a long staying bird (of the Russian subspecies) that was joined by a second on 18 December and they both remained, to the immense relief of those of us who keep a year list, until 1 January when they departed for the last time (one of them relocated a couple of miles west at the Walthamstow Wetlands where it remained until 6 Jan).



Russian White-Fronted Goose - Jono Lethbridge

The Goosander on Perch Pond on 28 December was a patch tick for many of us, but things just got better. The drake was joined by a second male on 31 December and, then, at least 7 birds were seen on 1 January (there was a bit of movement hence the uncertainty). A single drake was reported on 2nd, 7th, 12th, and 16th January and then two birds on 24 January so quite an extraordinary period for this previously patch-rare bird.



Goosander - Jono Lethbridge

Most of the other highlights were associated with the early-February cold-snap (or the mini 'Beast From The East' which certainly shared a number of similarities with its meteorological namesake from three years ago).


As the cold weather front came in from the continent, the bird sightings began with a single Lapwing circling the football pitches on Sunday 7 February. Then, just off-patch sadly, but still worth a mention, I had a flock of 5 vocal Redshank fly over my house in Leytonstone (a real local rarity). These birds were heard some time before they were seen over the rooftops and I strongly suspect that they were circling over the Western Flats (just a couple of minutes walk from house), or even had come up off the ground. I then continued to hear calls even after they had passed over which suggests they circled back round again or there were more birds which I didn't see.


C Snipe - Richard Rae

As temperatures continued to fall, the frozen ground pushed increasing numbers of birds in search of feeding areas. In the week from Sunday 7 Feb to Saturday 13 Feb, we had an astonishing 1593 Lapwing pass over (only six fewer birds than we recorded during the 'Beast' in 2018) and with our peak day on Monday 8 Feb with 565 birds. If Lapwing are the 'cake' of eastern cold fronts, then Golden Plover are the icing. Nine birds were seen on 12 Feb and a single bird was seen on the following day. The cold weather also brought a record 12 Snipe (including a single flock of 10 on the Fairground/Police Scrape on 8 February) and a Shelduck to Jubilee, and occasionally Alexandra, lakes. This rather tame individual is the first of the species on the deck for some time. It remained throughout February and into March (as at time of writing).


Lapwing - Bob Vaughan




But, to continue the analogy, if Lapwing and Golden Plover were cake and icing, then the cherry on the top was a Kittiwake on Alexandra Lake on 9 February. Found by Richard Rae, this was the first patch Kittiwake since 2014 and was a patch tick for many of us. The clearly exhausted bird stayed long enough for all the local regulars to get a good view before, hopefully, heading back out to sea.


1w Kittiwake - Tony Brown


Many of us struggled to concentrate on working from home as cloud-shaped flocks of Lapwing floated past - mostly heading west or south west - and occasionally settling briefly on the ground to test their luck or perhaps out of exhaustion.


Whilst wonderful to see these birds, it is bittersweet at best as sadly many of them will likely not have made it back to where they came from. It is a reminder that cold weather is often little more than an inconvenience for many of us; but it is literally life and death for large numbers of birds and other organisms.


Duck numbers

Duck numbers have been shockingly low this winter; particularly in the Park where we have previously had many hundreds of Gadwall and good numbers of other duck. We are not sure what has caused this fall, but perhaps a water quality test of the lakes is due again? Shoveler and Teal both had high-counts of 28 and averaged only 10 and 4 respectively per day that they were recorded. Gadwall averaged 5 birds per day with a high count of 42. The day of the Kittiwake (9 Feb) was also the only day this winter that we have had Wigeon on the patch; nine birds on Alex only present for a few hours. Some of the waterfowl numbers have been crunched in the table.




Gulls

There have been three reports of Caspian Gull on Wanstead Flats this winter although sadly not with any photos - on the 26 Dec, 11 and 14 Jan.


We have been lucky to have a very long-staying 1st winter Mediterranean Gull found on 19 December and still present at the time of writing. On the 19th and 21st we actually had two Med Gulls (actually causing a bit of confusion on the first day they were here together). 


We have also had Yellow-legged Gull appearances sporadically through the winter with a maximum of two birds (an adult and a 2nd winter) on 7 February. It was also on this day that we had the highest count of gulls overall; extensive flooding and cold front meant we had heavily inflated numbers of gulls on the pitches (which more resembled pools at the time). We made a rough count of at least 1800 Common Gull and over 1000 Black-headed Gull with three figures of Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull.



1w Mediterranean Gull - Tony Brown

Other birds or numbers of note

We always have one or two wintering Chiffchaff and Blackcap and this season was no different. A single Chiffchaff was encountered a few times in the Old Sewage Works through December. The first Chiffchaff of the new year was only seen briefly by Cat and Dog Pond on 6 January and there was then a gap until 28 January when one was picked up in the Old Sewage Works. Since then, it/they have been encountered more frequently (although never certainly more than one bird a day) and we have had one singing by the stables. It is a similar picture with Blackcap although wintering birds seem more frequently found in adjacent gardens to the Patch than in key habitats centrally.



There have also been four day's worth of sightings of Firecrest in Bush Wood.




Skylark began to be consistently seen or heard by around mid-January and in February we have had a high-count of five birds and at least 3 singing males.


Throughout December and January, we have had two pairs of Stonechat over-wintering; one pair by Cat & Dog pond (helping to entertain those working on restoring the pond to a more appealing habitat), and another mainly found around the south Brooms area and Angell Pond. However, by mid February, these wintering birds had departed and were almost immediately replaced by some others on passage (we had a winter high-count of 7 on 20 Feb) and then a single longer-staying female in the Brooms until 27 Feb. This has been a good winter for Stonechat on the patch and follows our record-breaking Autumn (a high count of 16 birds on 7 October).




Stonechat - Nick Croft

Two of our finch species are worth noting. We have consistently had a good flock of Lesser Redpoll with up to 40 birds being counted on numerous dates; mostly in the SSSI, but often, later around Alex and a/the same flock of c26 birds by the Roding in the Old Sewage Works on 21 February.


We consistently get a flock of Siskin frequenting the Alders at either end of Perch Pond in the Park. This year's winter flock was first noted on 10 November and we had a high count of 29 birds on 1 January. The flock was last reported on 31 January although a visiting birder did report 2 Siskin in the Park on 12 February.